Angela Carter’s Wise Children
Angela Carter’s Wise Children is a novel centring on the story of the Hazard family, a theatrical dynasty which dominates the British stage for nearly a century. The narrator of the story, Dora Chance, is one of the Chance twins, identical twin girls who are illegitimate twice over: their famous father, Melchior Hazard, repeatedly denies his paternity to the twins, and by profession as they perform in music and burlesque halls, a far cry from the dramatic royalty from which they are born. Connor suggests that Wise Children ‘establishes a parallel between family lineage and culture, and embraces and celebrates the undersides of official culture just as it prefers the condition of uncertain or illegitimate parentage’ (Connor 37). This divide between high and low culture, represented by the physical divide of the river Thames, is also manifested in the divide between legitimacy and illegitimacy with the Hazard family. Dora, however, is not lessened by her illegitimacy, but rather embraces her alternative status. As Kate Webb notes, Dora revels in her wrong-sidedness, to sustain her opposition to authority, and yet to show that the culture and society she inhabits is not one of rigid demarcation, but has always been mixed up and hybrid: Shakespeare may have become the very symbol of legitimate culture, but his work is characterised by bastardry, multiplicity and incest; the Hazard dynasty may represent propriety and tradition, but they, too, are an endlessly orphaned, errant, and promiscuous bunch (Webb 282).
Dora, from the opening paragraph, establishes that she is resistant to the status quo, calling her area of London the ‘bastard child’, and yet her connection with Shakespeare, the standard of cultural legitimacy, is established in parallel through symbolism and allegory. Wise Children is a novel that questions the stability of cultural divide through the individual story of the Chance sisters and their relation to the wider world.
On a structural level, the novel is a novel in both contemporary and Shakespearean senses, a parallel which is establish from the very beginning. The novel begins with an introduction by the narrator, Dora Chance, illegitimate daughter of the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time. Her story is characterised by optimism and humour, and although Dora tells the reader that she is writing her story on the day of her seventy-fifth birthday, it is immediately evident that she does not see herself as old except in the physical sense. Dora’s experience is fragmented and discontinuous, which is paralleled in her narrative style.
Sometimes I think, if I look hard enough, I can see back into the past. There goes the wind, again. Over the dustbin, all the trash spills out … empty cat-good cans, cornflake packets, laddered tights, tea leave . I am at present working on my memoirs and researching family history – see the word processor, the filing cabinet, the card indexes, right hand, left hand, right side, left side, all the dirt on everybody. What a wind! (3).
Through the disorderly narrative Carter suggests a tangled multi-culture, and it is only towards the end of the novel when Dora’s narrative levels out, in parallel with the unification of the Hazard family.
The first person point of view allows for a dialogic narrative. From the third sentence, the reader is aware of an intimacy with the author, as the first person narrative and direct address to the reader invites them into the story. ‘Good morning!’ she begins with exuberance, introducing herself and her story. ‘Welcome to the wrong side of the tracks’ (1), letting the reader know right away that this is an alternate narrative. The first person narrative invites the reader to share in this story.
Mikhail Bakhtin argues that language is intrinsically dialogic because it implies a listener who must also, therefore be another speaker. Carter demonstrates this through the use of a first-person narrative. Dora Chance speaks to her readers as if they would respond. ‘You can see for miles, out of this window . There’s Westminster Abbey, see?’ (2). At the beginning of the novel, Dora tells the reader that she is writing her autobiography on her seventy-fifth birthday, but the vernacular language she uses is so potent that she becomes the iconic storyteller. ‘Well you might have known what you were about to let yourself in for when you let Dora Chance in her ratty old fur and poster paint, her orange (Persian Melon) toenails sticking out of her snakeskin peep-toes, reeking of liquor, accost you in the Coach and Horses and let her tell you a tale’ (227). She repeatedly draws attention to her status as the storyteller, the narrator of not only the Hazard dynasty, but of British history itself. ‘Sometimes I think,’ she says, ‘if I look hard enough, I can see back into the past’ (3). But is this the past as it happened, as Dora remembers it or as she imagines it? We, the reader, are forced to trust Dora’s narrative as the truth and are, in turn forced to make our own truth.
David Lodge describes the beginning of a novel as ‘a threshold, separating the real world we inhabit from world the novelist has imagined’ (Lodge 5).
Applying Lodge’s statement to Carter’s novel, it is easy to see the way in which the author draws in the reader from the very first sentence. ‘Why is London like Budapest?’ (1) Dora Chance asks. The reader is unsure, at this point, if this is a riddle or a serious question. Dora continues by describing a city divided by a river, separated by a physical barrier. London and Budapest, cities divided by rivers into the legitimate, prosperous side and the lesser, ‘bastard side’ as Dora says. This theme of division runs throughout the novel, challenging notions of legitimacy and celebrating the vitality of otherness. ‘Once upon a time,’ she says, ‘you could make a crude distinction’ (1) between the affluent North and the urban South. But Dora’s story itself confronts the dichotomy. ‘You can’t trust things to say the same’ (1) and indeed her narrative, from the first page, celebrates and legitimises the alternative life.
Dora’s art is from both sides of the river, chronicling a history of exclusion and opposition, but also the celebration of the marginal and unconventional. Carter sets up the opposition in the opening pages of the novel between legitimacy and illegitimacy, high and low culture, and yet cracks appear in this social binary. From the window of their Brixton flat, Dora can see the emblems of the London upper class: Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s. Like the London landscape, the social landscape is also being pulled down, built up and changed, blending the high and the low. As Carter herself says, ‘I believe that all myths are products of the human mind and reflect only aspects of material human practice. I’m in the demythologising business’ (Carter 1983). The narrative is clearly symbolic of the modern literary and social condition, established by the individual experience of the Chance sisters.
Angela Carter was clearly influenced by Foucault’s theories of cultural divide, and this is revealed in the way in which the dualist structures of the past, religion, patriarchy and empire, are still in existence in the present within the novel (Webb 290). Using the image of the two cities, London and Budapest, as emblematic of this natural division, Carter argues that plurality and division are not conditions of the modern world, but have always existed and are characteristics of the human condition itself. The figure of the a family divided and yet united is symbolic of a changing culture of literature itself. The novel deconstructs the binary of legitimate and illegitimate, appearing to privilege the cultural underside in the narrative of the Chance sisters, but the narrative itself represents a changing order in which there is no clear divide.